THE ARTS, SCIENCES, ORIGINAL PEOPLES and THE BASEMENTS of the WORLD
ZAPATISTA NATIONAL LIBERATION ARMY
To: Juan Villoro Ruiz
I’m happy to hear that the rest of your family bajo protesta [i] are well, and I appreciate your serving as messenger to send them our greetings and gifts (although I continue to think that ties, ashtrays, and vases would have been a better choice).
As I picked up my pen to continue this conversation with you, I remembered your text “Speech on the rain” (Almadía Press, 2013), written, I believe, for the stage, which I read imagining, clumsily I’m sure, the set and the gestures and movements of the actor delivering the monologue, feeling the intervention more than witnessing it. The beginning, for example, is a summary of my life: the laconic “I lost my papers!” of the first line would make for an encyclopedia if I anchor it in the calendars and geographies of this continual lapse and relapse that I have been.
Because inevitably, after the opening line in an epistle, I lose my point (the “tonelada” (ton), as the compas say when referring to the “tone” of a song). That is, I depart from the concrete objective of the letter. It’s true that clarifying who will receive the letter could help, but often the recipient is a brotherly ear for whom the idea is to provoke not necessarily an answer, but always a thought, a doubt, a questioning, not of the kind that paralyzes but the kind that motivates more thoughts, doubts, questions, etceteras.
So perhaps, as for the librarian-lecturer who is the protagonist in your piece, words come that weren’t purposefully sought out, but rather were just there, lying in wait, pending a moment of inattention, a crack in the everyday in order to accost the paper, the screen, or that wrinkled sheet of “where-the-hell-did-I-leave-oh-here-it-is-when-did-i-write-this-nonsense?” The words then cease to be shield and barricade, lance and sword, and become, very much to our chagrin, a mirror in which one is revealed and kept awake at night [devela y desvela].
Of course, the librarian can turn to their aisles flanked with bookshelves, with their alphabetical and numerical order, their calendars and geographies drawing a map of literary treasures. They can look for the “o” in “oblivion” and see if there they can find what was lost. But here, in this continual moving around, the idea of a library, even a minimal and mobile one, is a chimera. Don’t think I didn’t look with unfounded hope upon the idea of electronic books (on a “USB” or “pen drive” or “external memory” one could load if not Borges’ library than at least a small one: Cervantes, Neruda, Tomás Segovia, Le Carré, Conan Doyle, Miguel Hernández, Shakespeare, Rulfo, Joyce, Malú Huacuja, Edurado Galeano, Alcira Élida Soust Scaffo, Alighieri, Eluard, León Portilla and the magician of words: García Lorca, among others). But no, like the librarian loses papers, I lose USB drives and who knows where they end up.
But believe me, we all have our embarrassing fantasies. In the USBs of electronic books there was usually a miscellaneous selection of authors, perhaps under the assumption that the drive would be lost and the authors would be together and, maybe, I don’t know, after all, literature is a genre of the impossible concretized in words, they could have a “sharing exchange” among themselves.
“Literature is a place where it rains,” you have the protagonist say, having fallen into misfortune and been obliged to strip down, without the clothing of his writing, to show himself for what he is: vulnerable.
So imagine a USB with these or other artists of the word. Imagine it begins to rain. Imagine what they talk about among themselves as they try to make sure a raindrop doesn’t ruin the binary code in which they live and thus begin the misunderstandings: 0-1-0 –stain-1-smudge-0-0-smudge-1 or whatever, and from there emerges the “how dare you!” and then the back and forth of “fuck you” and “I’ll beat the shit out of you,” “go to hell,” “vous êtes fou”, “va’ fa’ ta culo,” while Alcira hands out mimeographed copies of his “Poesia en Armas” [Poetry in Arms], something I think won’t do anything to calm the belligerent attitudes. In sum, all of the happy expectations ruined… because of the rain.
Of course, mutatis mutando,[ii] in your letters it is a cat who provides the meager public for the speaker, and here it is a cat-dog with a little light who may be disconcerted by what I write, as if a cat-that-is-a-dog-that-is-a-cat-that-is-dog with a little light curled up in the shadows wasn’t disconcerting enough.
Do I digress? That seems most likely. After all, this impossible exchange on a USB that trusts that the rain will not ruin its colloquium is just a fantasy.
But if for the speaker the subject at hand is the rain, in this missive the subject is… the storm. Allow me then to take advantage of these lines to continue our exchange of reflections on the complex crisis that approaches, according to some, or that is already here, according to others.
Someone has said that our vision (captured now in the typography of the book “Critical Thought Versus the Capitalist Hydra: Contributions from the Sixth Commission of the EZLN”) is apocalyptic and closer to Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead” (the comic and the television series it inspired or didn’t) than to Milton and Rose Friedman and their “Freedom to Choose” (the book as well as the economic policies that make it their alibi). They have said that we are mistaken because we are not sufficiently orthodox, or mistaken for being too orthodox. That nothing is going to happen, that upon arising each morning whatever one wants for breakfast will be available, that the neighbor’s dog will continue barking at the trash truck, that upon opening the tap what will come out is water and not the sound of the hereafter. That we are just big ugly birds of ill omen, who in any case don’t have media or academic impact (two things that are increasingly the same).
In sum, that the machine functions and that everyone is where they are supposed to be. The jolts are sporadic and they are only that, jolts, and the turbulence is passing and can be chalked up to the fact that somebody is resisting being where they should be. That it’s just like when a watch breaks because a gear or spring has come out of place, and the State is the “watchmaker” that gets rid of the broken piece and substitutes it with another.
The Apocalypse (everything included)? A universal flood? Humanity imprisoned on the apparently eternal or immortal train from Snowpiercer (the film by the South Korean Bong Joon-ho, titled “Rompenieves” on the “alternative production” DVD that was sent to me—and which I now can’t find) and reproducing within itself the same inhumanity that, wanting to solve global warming, induced the cooling of the planet?
Nothing could be further from our thinking. We Zapatistas don’t believe the world is going to end. We do think that the world we currently know is going to collapse, and that its implosion will give rise to a thousand human and natural tragedies.
If this implosion is already in process or is yet to come is still something that has to be debated, argued, investigated, affirmed, or denied. But as far as we know, there is no one who dares to deny it. Everybody up above accepts that the machine is failing, and they trot out a thousand and one solutions, always within the same logic of the machine. But there are those who want to break with that logic and assert: humanity is possible without the machine.
In any case, given what we are, we are not so worried about the storm. After all, the original peoples and the dispossessed of Mexico and of the world have lived through centuries worth of storm. If there is anything one learns below, it is how to live in adverse conditions.
Life then, and in a few cases death, is a continual struggle, a battle fought in every corner of the calendars and geographies. And I’m not talking here about global battles, but about personal ones.
As one can conclude from a careful read of our words that our message is one that goes beyond the storm and its pains.
It is our belief that the possibility of a better world (not a perfect nor a finished one, we’ll leave that for religious and political dogmas) is one without the machine, and this possibility rests on a tripod. More accurately, it rests on the interrelation between three columns that have endured and persevered, with their ups and downs, their small victories and great defeats, throughout the brief history of the world: the arts (with the exception of literature), the sciences, and the original peoples along with the basements of humanity all over the world.
Perhaps you ask yourselves, in part out of curiosity and in (large) part out of direct interpellation, why I have put literature in an exclusive category. I will get to that a little further on.
You will note that, abandoning the classics, I haven’t included politics among the paths to salvation. Knowing us a bit (despite the fact that we now don’t appear even buried in the interior pages of the press, we do have our own abundant bibliography for anyone who has honest interest in knowing what Zapatismo is about), it is clear that we are referring to a classical politics, politics “from above.”
Listen, Juan, brother, I know that this is all heading toward not another letter but really a whole library, since that is what we’ve been talking about, so allow me to leave that point pending. Not because it is less important or transcendent in the storm, but because “I’m on a roll” as the compas say and if I follow whatever tangent that words tempt me with, there is a serious risk that this letter will never get to you, not because of the rain but because it will never be finished.
I have used “the arts” because it is the arts (and not politics) that delve most deeply into the human being and rescue its essence. It is as if the world continued to be the same, but that through art we could find the human possibility among so many gears, screws, and springs humorlessly grinding away. In contrast to politics, art doesn’t try to readjust or repair the machine. Rather, it does something more subversive and disconcerting: it shows the possibility of another world.
I put “the sciences” (and I refer here especially to the so-called “formal sciences” and “natural sciences,” considering that the social sciences have a few things yet to define—note that this doesn’t imply a demand or exigency) because they hold the possibility to reconstruct something atop the catastrophe that “operates” across the entire world territory. And I am not talking about “reconstruction” in the sense of taking what has fallen and putting it back together in the image or semblance of its version before the tragedy. I am talking about “remaking,” that is, “to make anew.” And scientific knowledge can reorient the desperation and imbibe it with its real meaning, that is, “cease to hope.” And anyone who ceases to hope can begin to act.
Politics, the economy, and religion divide, parcel up, split apart. The sciences and the arts unite, connect, convert borders into ridiculous cartographic points.
But, its true, none are exempt from the fierce division of classes and they must choose: they either contribute to the maintenance and reproduction of the machine, or they contribute to the demonstration of its necessary abolition.
It is as if instead of re-labeling the machine, prettying or tuning it up, art and science put out, upon the superficial chrome surface of the system, a laconic and definitive sign: “EXPIRED,” “Time’s up,” “to continue watching, deposit another world.”
Imagine (your generation must have heard some John Lennon; mine is more about sones and huapangos), imagine that everything that gets spent on politics (for example, elections by way of the vote and elections by way of war, equally antidemocratic—“politics and the economy are the continuation of war by other means” Clausewitz would have said had he started from social science) went instead to the sciences and the arts. Imagine if instead of electoral and military campaigns there were laboratories, centers for research and dissemination, concerts, expositions, festivals, bookstores, libraries, theaters, cinemas, and countryside and cities where what reigned were the sciences and the arts rather than the machines.
Of course, we Zapatistas are convinced that this is only possible outside of the machine. And that the machine must be destroyed. Not readjusted, not shined up, not made “more human.” No, destroyed. If something of its remains are useful, it will be as a reminder not to repeat the nightmare, like a landmark one can see in the rearview mirror as that path is left behind.
But we don’t doubt that there are those who think or believe that a readjustment is plausible without altering its functioning, by changing the engineer or assuring that the most luxurious train cars redistribute their riches so that something (not much though, no need to exaggerate) gets to the cars at the tail end. Of course, this is always accompanied by the emphasis that everyone is exactly where they belong. But candidness, brother, tends to be one disguise for perversity.
I have mentioned the original peoples and the basements of the world, yes, as they are the ones with the greatest capacity to survive the storm and the only ones with the capacity to create “something else.” Someone will have to respond tomorrow to the question, “Is there anyone on Earth?” And here the word presents, not without provocative flirtation, another detour that, for the good of this missive, I will avoid with my renowned restraint.
I commented before, in a sarcastic and argumentative tone, on “the arts except for literature.” Well, that’s because I think (and this is an individual opinion) that literature must create ties between the three legs of the tripod, and make clear, happily or not, their interrelation. Literature must be, “The Witness.” But, most likely I am mistaken and it’s just that, in this hand of cards, I have uncovered the “Joker” in order to ask “Why so serious?”
What do we want? The key to understanding the subterranean message of Zapatismo is in the small stories that, in the form of the little indigenous girl who calls herself “Zapatista Defense,” appear in the book “Critical Thought Versus the Capitalist Hydra.”
Imagine what, because it is necessary and urgent, seems to be impossible: a woman who grows up without fear.
Of course every geography and calendar adds its own chains: indigenous, migrant, worker, orphan, displaced, illegal, disappeared, subtly or explicitly abused, raped, murdered, forever condemned to add burden and sentence to the condition of being a woman.
What world would be birthed by a woman who could be born and grow up without fear of violence, harassment, persecution, disrespect, exploitation?
Wouldn’t that world be terrible and marvelous?
So if at some point they ask me, a ghostly shadow with an impertinent nose, to define Zapatismo’s objective, I would say: to make a world where a woman can be born and grow up without fear.”
Note: I’m not saying that in this world those kinds of violence wouldn’t be lying in wait for her (most of all because the planet could end several times over and still not be rid of the worst of our condition of being men).
I’m also not saying that there aren’t women without fear already. Their rebellious determination has won them that victory in daily battle, and they know that battles can be won, but not the war. No, not until any woman in any corner of the world’s geographies and calendars can grow up without fear.
I am talking about a tendency. Could we affirm that the majority of women are born and grow up without fear? I don’t think so, and probably I’m mistaken, and I’m sure there are figures, statistics, and examples that show I’m mistaken.
But, within our limited horizon, we perceive fear, fear because one is small, fear because one is big, fear because one is slim, fear because one is fat, fear because one is pretty, fear because one is ugly, fear because one is pregnant, fear because one is not pregnant, fear because one is a little girl, fear because one is a young woman, fear because one is a mature woman, fear because one is an elderly woman.
Is it worth it to put effort into that step, into life and death in such a chimera?
We Zapatistas say yes, it is worth it.
And to that task we give our lives, which may be little, but it is all we have.
Yes, you are right that there will be no lack of those who call us “naïve” (in the best of cases, because in all languages there are cruder synonyms). I like this word processor, with its free and open source software, because every time I want to write “case” or “cases” the spellcheck proposes “chaos.” I think the free software knows more about devastating storms than I do.
In sum, what was I saying? Oh! The lost words, their shipwreck in papers or bytes, the original peoples and the basements of humanity converted in Noah’s Ark, the sciences and the arts as life-saving islands, a fearless little girl as compass and port…
Eh? Yes, I agree with you that the result of all of this has more chaos than case, but this is only a letter that will be, as all letters should be, converted into a paper airplane with the intimidating insignia of the “Zapatista Air Force” drawn on one side, and there it goes looking for its destination. Who knows where you are Juan, brother bajo protesta. [iii] Like grandmothers used to say (I don’t know if they still do), “calm down son,” and get into a jacket or an embrace because it’s cold and “the topic at hand, you know, is the rain.”
From the mountains of the Mexican Southeast,
Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano.
[i] “Bajo protesta” can mean both reluctance/protest and “under oath.” As used here, it would seem to indicate a reluctance.
[ii] The Spanish uses “mutandis mutando,” a riff on the Latin Mutatis mutandis (meaning “the necessary changes having been made” or “once the necessary changes have been made”) using the verb “mutar,” to mutate.
[iii] Here again “bajo protesta” can mean both reluctance/protest and “under oath.” Again, it would seem to indicate reluctance.